Last year, Ben Carson, the leading candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, urged Americans to read “Mein Kampf.” Hitler’s classic, Carson explained, reveals the true nature of President Obama’s agenda. He neglected, however, to illustrate his point with the GOP’s favorite bogeyman, France. This is a country, after all, where only old or dubious translations of “Mein Kampf” exist.
Be reassured, Ben: All this is about to change.
Two weeks ago, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing Parti de Gauche, posted an incendiary blog post titled: “No! We Don’t Need ‘Mein Kampf’ When We Already Have Le Pen!” The blog post was a response to the announcement made by Fayard, one of France’s most prestigious publishers, to undertake a new and critical edition of Hitler’s book. A team of noted scholars — yet to be identified — will accompany a new translation of the text with their notes and commentaries, adding several hundred pages more to the work’s 700 pages of hallucinatory claims and anti-Semitic rants.
The occasion for Fayard’s decision was the lapsing of the copyright of “Mein Kampf” after the statutory 70 years. At the end of World War II, the German state of Bavaria was, by circuitous means, left holding the book’s copyright. For obvious reasons, Bavarian officials refused to allow the book to be reprinted. Though the decision remained in place until this year — when the book falls into the public domain — there flourished an active trade in secondhand editions at flea markets.
A few years ago, Germany’s respected Institute of Contemporary History, with an eye to the lapsing of the book’s copyright, began work on a critical edition. At first, the Bavarian government rallied to the project; as Markus Söder, the finance minister, declared: “We have to deal with the book. It must be demystified.” However, after a salvo of criticism from Jewish organizations, the government concluded it was best not to deal with the book, and so it withdrew its financial support from the project. To no avail, though: The Institute of Contemporary History soldiered on, and the new edition, buffered by 2,000 pages of notes, will become available early next year.
Like its German counterparts, Fayard argues that a scholarly and annotated version of the book will serve as an antidote to its vile contents. But Mélenchon was not buying this argument. In an open letter, Mélenchon blasted Fayard’s rationale to retranslate and republish the book. Describing “Mein Kampf” as “the major work of the era’s greatest criminal,” Mélenchon declared that its publication in the 1920s guaranteed “the death sentence of 6 million people.” As for Fayard’s efforts to supply a critical framework, Mélenchon was no less categorical: “The mere mention of your project has already assured this criminal book unprecedented publicity. Re-editing this book is to make it accessible to anyone and everyone. Who needs to read it?”
Well, Ben Carson, for one. It shouldn’t take a neurosurgeon to understand, after reading a few pages of the book’s racist and anti-Semitic ravings, that Carson’s historical comparisons are obscene. Nor should it take a philosophy teacher — Mélenchon’s original calling — to appreciate the outlandishness of his blog post’s claims. Of the many appalling elements found in “Mein Kampf,” a user’s manual for Auschwitz is not one of them. With the exception of Lucy Dawidowicz, most Holocaust historians rightly dismiss the emotionally satisfying but historically naive claim that “Mein Kampf” inexorably led to the gas chambers. No doubt Fayard’s team of historians will frame the book with a functionalist interpretation of the Final Solution, one that emphasizes the chaotic and unplanned play of economic, strategic and military factors that climaxed at Auschwitz.
As for Mélenchon’s fear that the book will fall into malign hands, all he need do is Google “Mein Kampf.” Scarcely will he have begun when he discovers that the second most popular search category is “Mein Kampf PDF.” Moreover, those looking for a French translation will have just one of two choices. One is the 1938 edition published by, yes, Fayard. Titled “Ma Doctrine,” it is a potted translation from which Hitler’s Francophobic tirades were dropped at the führer’s demand. Equally unsavory is the unauthorized translation issued by Nouvelles Éditions Latines in 1934. Fernand Sorlot, a member of the anti-Semitic L’Action Française, founded the publishing house in 1928. After the liberation, a Paris court found Sorlot guilty of collaboration, stripping him of both his civic rights and his printing presses. The book remains in print, but with a cautionary preface imposed in 1979 by a French court.
Finally, there is the matter of Mélenchon’s warning that France does not need “Mein Kampf” when it already has Marine Le Pen. Yet France already has both one and the other, and by lumping together the two of them, Mélenchon does violence not just to the past, but also to the present. The leader of the Front National is many things, most of them repugnant, but she is not an anti-Semite. Besides, she has no need of Hitler’s brand of racism to target immigrants and Muslims as France’s greatest threat. The tragedy is that a critical edition by experts of her speeches would no more stop the rise of the Front National than Fayard’s edition of “Mein Kampf” will staunch the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Robert Zaretsky is a contributing editor to the Forward.